Adult Attachment Styles: Definitions and Impact on Relationships

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Attachment is a deep emotional bond between two people. The idea was pioneered by John Bowlby, but his attachment theory, as well as Mary Ainsworth’s ideas about attachment styles, mostly focused on the relationship between an infant and an adult caregiver. Since Bowlby introduced the concept, psychologists have extended attachment research into adulthood. This research has led to the specification of four adult attachment styles among other findings.

Key Takeaways: Adult Attachment Styles

  • John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth were the first researchers to study attachment, the close bonds that develop between two people. They investigated attachment in infancy, but the research has since been extended to attachment in adulthood.
  • Adult attachment styles develop along two dimensions: attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance.
  • There are four adult attachment styles: secure, anxious preoccupied, dismissive avoidant, and fearful avoidant. However, most researchers today don’t categorize people into one of these attachment styles, instead preferring to measure attachment along the continuums of anxiety and avoidance.
  • Many assume there is stability in attachment style throughout the lifespan, however, this question is still unresolved and requires further research.

Adult Attachment Styles

While John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s pioneering work focused on the development of infant attachments, Bowlby suggested that attachment impacts human experience throughout the lifespan. The research on adult attachment has demonstrated that some, but not all, adult relationships function like attachment relationships. As a result, adults exhibit individual differences in attachment relationships just like young children do.

Research on adult attachment styles has shown that there are two dimensions on which these styles develop. One dimension is attachment-related anxiety. Those who are high on this dimension are more insecure and worried about their relationship partner’s availability and attentiveness. The other dimension is attachment-related avoidance. Those who are high on this dimension have difficulty opening up and being vulnerable with significant others. Interestingly, recent research into child attachment patterns have also discovered that like adults, children’s attachment styles tend to vary along the dimensions of anxiety and avoidance, demonstrating that attachment styles at different ages are based on similar factors.

These two dimensions give rise to the following four adult attachment styles:

Secure Attachment

Those who have a secure attachment style score low on both anxiety and avoidance. They trust that those they have close relationships with will be there to offer support and security when needed and are prepared to offer security and support when their partners need it in return. They find it easy to open up in relationships and are good at articulating what they want and need from their partners. They’re confident and optimistic about their relationships and tend to find them stable and satisfying.

Anxious Preoccupied Attachment

Those with an anxious preoccupied attachment style are high on the anxiety dimension but low on the avoidance dimension. These individuals have difficulty trusting their partners’ commitment to them. Because they are more pessimistic and worried about their relationships, they often need reassurance from their partners and will create or overemphasize conflicts. They may also have issues with jealousy. As a result, their relationships are often tumultuous.

Dismissive Avoidant Attachment

Those with a dismissive avoidant attachment style are low on the anxiety dimension but high on the avoidance dimension. People with this kind of attachment style are often aloof and emotionally distant in relationships. They may claim they fear commitment. These individuals may seek to assert their independence by delving into individual activities like work, hobbies, or social activities that don’t involve their significant others. They may come across as focused only on themselves and may have passive aggressive tendencies.

Fearful Avoidant Attachment

Those with a fearful avoidant attachment style are high in both anxiety and avoidance. These individuals both fear and desire intimate relationships. On the one hand, they want the support and security that comes from having a significant other. On the other, they worry their significant other will hurt them and at other times feel stifled by the relationship. As a result, people with a fearful avoidant attachment style can be inconsistent towards their partners from day to day, and their ambivalent attitude can lead to chaos.

While these categories are helpful in describing the extremes on the dimensions of anxiety and avoidance, due to recent research on adult attachment, scholars tend to measure individual differences in attachment along the continuum of each dimension. As a result, adult attachment styles are measured by the degree of anxiety and avoidance each individual scores, providing a more nuanced picture of attachment style than if an individual were simply placed into one of the above four attachment style categories.

Studying Adult Attachment Styles

Studies on adult attachments have generally focused on two different types of relationships. Developmental psychologists have investigated how parents’ adult attachment styles influence their children’s attachment styles. Meanwhile, social and personality psychologists have examined attachment styles within the context of close adult relationships, especially romantic relationships.

Impact of Attachment Styles on Parenting

In the mid-1980s, Mary Main and her colleagues created the Adult Attachment Interview, which uses an adults’ memories of their experiences with their parents as children to categorize them into one of four attachment styles similar to those outlined above. Main then examined the attachment styles of her adult participants’ children and found that adults who were securely attached had securely attached children. Meanwhile, those with the three insecure attachment styles have children who also have a similar insecure attachment style. In another study, pregnant women were given the Adult Attachment Interview. Their children were then tested for attachment style at 12 months old. Like the first study, this research demonstrated that the mothers’ attachment styles corresponded to those of their babies'.

Impact of Attachment Styles on Romantic Relationships

Research has demonstrated that attachment in adult romantic relationships functions similarly to attachment in infant-caregiver relationships. Although adults don’t have the same needs as children, studies have shown that adults with secure attachment look to their partners for support when they’re upset, just as secure infants look to their caregivers. Research has also demonstrated that although adults with a fearful avoidant attachment style may act defensive, they are still emotionally aroused by conflicts with their significant other. On the other hand, people with dismissive avoidant attachment can suppress their emotions towards a significant other. In this sense, avoidance acts as a defense mechanism that helps the individual alleviate the pain brought about by relationship difficulties.

Impact of Attachment Styles on Social Behavior

Studies have indicated that everyday social behavior is informed by one’s attachment style, as well. Securely attached individuals tend to have positive social interactions on a regular basis. In contrast, those with an anxious preoccupied attachment style experience a mix of positive and negative daily social interactions, which may reinforce both their desire for and distrust of relationships. Furthermore, those with a dismissive avoidant attachment style tend to have more negative than positive social interactions in their daily lives, and in general, experience less intimacy and enjoyment in social situations. This lack of enjoyment could be one reason people with dismissive avoidant attachment often keep others at arm's length.

Can Attachment Styles Change?           

Scholars generally agree that attachment styles in childhood influence attachment styles in adulthood, however the degree of consistency is likely only modest. In fact, in adulthood, one may experience different attachment styles with different people in their lives. For example, one study showed that there was only a small to moderate association between one’s current attachment style with a parental figure and their attachment style with a current romantic partner. Yet, some research findings indicate that attachment styles are reinforced because people choose to have relationships with those who confirm their beliefs about close connections.

Thus, the question of stability and change in individual attachment styles is unresolved. Different studies have provided different evidence depending on the way attachment is conceptualized and measured. Many psychologists assume there is long-term stability in attachment style, especially in adulthood, but it is still an open question that requires further research.

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